The highest-profile awards of the music world, the Grammys, recognize major achievements, carry lots of positive publicity, and often fuel commercial success. Winning an award can be the big break that catapults an artist into stardom. National Public Radio calls the Grammys “sales juicers” and notes that “a Grammy Award could vault an album up the charts. Or make a career.”
So it’s well-established that winning an award carries commercial gain for artists. But do these awards impact the music itself? On one hand, winning a Grammy could prompt a “don’t mess with success” mentality, motivating artists to emulate the music that brought their initial recognition and the commercial success that followed. On the other hand, artists could use awards as leverage to push back against the safer, more conventional priorities of their record labels.
As a team of organizational researchers interested in understanding the great variety of behaviors in cultural markets, this puzzle caught our eye. So we decided to investigate it. We looked into three questions: Does an artist’s music change if they win a Grammy? What if they’re nominated but lose? Why do the awards have the effects that they do?
Does an artist’s music change if they win a Grammy? What happens if they’re nominated but lose?
We recently explored these questions in the American Sociological Review. We found that after winning a Grammy, artists tend to release music that deviates stylistically from their own previous work, as well as from other artists in their genre. Nominees who lose do the opposite—their subsequent albums trend toward the mainstream. We think this happens because winning a Grammy grants an artist more leverage to pursue their personal artistic inclinations. Nonwinners, however, might interpret their loss as a negative signal about how their artistic choices deviated from the norm, and thus feel more bound to conventions of their genre.
In our study, we analyzed the four major all-genre Grammy Awards (Album of the Year; Record of the Year; Song of the Year; and Best New Artist), from 1959 to 2018. In that time, a total of 1,036 artists received nominations, and over 60 percent of them obtained only one nomination in their career; 278 artists won at least one Grammy. Among the winners, only 28 percent won more than one award.
To understand how artists’ music changed post-nomination, we focused on artistic differentiation relative to other recorded music in the same genre (e.g., blues, country, jazz, pop/rock, and rap). Specifically, we used a machine learning approach to determine the “stylistic distance” between albums. Styles include more specific categories ranging from experimental to new wave and punk—effectively subgenres. Think of David Bowie, whose early career music showcased baroque pop and psychedelic rock, which eventually evolved into dance rock, and even drum’n’bass. Or Lou Reed, whose rock albums varied from glam to experimental to heavy metal.
We implemented the machine learning method in two steps. First, we used the styles associated with each album to locate its “position” in the space of genres. Second, we calculated the distance between the position of each album from all others in the same genre from the previous three years. Greater distance of an album from the others indicates stronger differentiation.
After winning a Grammy, artists tend to release music that deviates stylistically from their own previous work, as well as from other artists in their genre. Nominees who lose do the opposite—their subsequent albums trend toward the mainstream.
To illustrate how the measure represents an artist’s music, consider Christina Aguilera. The American singer won a Grammy for Best New Artist of the Year in 2000 after releasing her eponymous album. Aguilera’s debut album positioned her in the then-trendy teen dance-pop style, and she rose to stardom. After a Spanish-language release consisting of re-recorded versions of tracks on the debut album, Aguilera pivoted artistically with her next release: Stripped incorporated stylistic forms from R & B and flamenco to rock. Compared to others in the pop/rock genre at the time, Stripped shows a stylistic distance value equal to 0.97, roughly four times the average distance of all Pop/Rock albums (0.24), including those released in the same year (0.26).
Compare Aguilera with the case of jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz, whose Jazz Samba album ushered in the bossa nova era of American jazz. Their trailblazing work received a Grammy nomination, but not an award, in 1963. After Jazz Samba, which showed a distance score of 1.27, Byrd continued to lean on the same combination of classical and Brazilian bossa nova guitar, which became much more common in American jazz through the ’60s. His records in the next twelve years, from Bossa Nova Pelos Passaros to Hollywood Byrd, all showed a distance score from other Jazz albums between 0.3 and 0.4.
Our main analysis reveals that, like Aguilera, Grammy winners tend to release subsequent albums that are more stylistically “distant” from the work of other artists in their genre. We also find that artists tend to differentiate themselves from their own prior work, illustrating how a Grammy win can set an artist on an all-around novel trajectory. By contrast, nonwinning nominees show greater similarity to other artists in their subsequent recordings. That is, stylistic distance decreased for the nonwinning nominees.
We also analyzed how awards and nominations contribute to commercial success and resources artists receive to produce their music. Replicating prior research, we find that after a nomination, artists’ albums land roughly 22 positions higher in their peak performance in the Billboard chart (net of controls). After a win, artists receive an additional boost of 27 positions. We also find that a Grammy nomination leads to an increase in production resources—all nominees receive a boost of about 50 percent. Here, we saw some additional resource increase for winners relative to nominees, but these effects were not statistically significant. Despite the significant commercial boost among the entire nominated group, however, our results suggest that winners and nonwinners use those resources to different ends.
For winners, the award impact seems to translate to leverage for musicians in their relationships with commercial partners. Musicians have long voiced complaints about their recording companies, saying companies’ control limits artistic freedom, pushing them to make less creative but more commercially viable music. In his protracted battle with Sony, George Michael said that the company regarded him as a “piece of software.” Prince changed his name to a symbol to protest the contractual stranglehold from Warner Brothers that limited the release of his prolific output. Winning a Grammy leaves an artist better situated to negotiate for more innovative future work that lets them push the bounds of their creativity and honor their personal style.
This leads to questions about the impact of awards on the music industry more broadly, and, ultimately, the music we all listen to. While winning an award prompts creativity and innovation, nominations alone result in conformity.
Given the negligible resource difference between winners and nonwinners, what else might explain the creative shift among nonwinners? Social psychologists point to negative affective reactions of “near success” such as “exasperation, heightened frustration.” Nonwinners recognize that their previous strategies did not deserve the award and subsequently take different actions (perhaps to try to win the next time). Contenders may also perceive that they lost because they deviated from a norm, and successively adapt toward more conventional behavior.
We also find that the extent to which a winning artist branches into new territory is related to their prior commercial success and the size of their recording company. The greater their past success, the less differentiation winning artists displayed. Similar for artists with large record labels: award winners with major record labels showed less differentiation than those with smaller ones. This suggests that the increase in artistic freedom may be tempered by individual or organizational constraints. We do not have direct evidence of contracts or negotiations between artists and record companies, but a possible explanation is that successful artists and their large labels have more to lose from experimenting with more unconventional music.
All this leads naturally to questions about the impact of awards on the music industry more broadly, and, ultimately, the music we all listen to. While winning an award prompts creativity and innovation, nominations alone result in conformity. Given that there are more nominees who did not win than who did, this pattern prompts the question: Would the music world be better off not publishing the list of Grammy nominees?
Such a system wouldn’t be unheard of—consider the Nobel Prize, which focuses only on winners. In this case, we’d expect winning artists to continue to innovate, potentially inspiring others to do the same, while shortlisted artists might avoid the observed blow to their creativity. However, while a Nobel-esque system might spare nominees from the pressure to conform, it would also strip them of the commercial success that comes with a nomination.
Awards are not the final word on what counts as good music, of course, but they do change the music that gets made.